Julia Child once said, “Life itself is the proper binge.”
The depth of influence, food and flavor we can forage in our own neighborhood is dizzying—from Tibetan momos to Armenian barbecue and Oaxacan barbacoa.
Popular interest in food, restaurants, chefs and cooking in general has soared over the last 20 years throughout the country and in Los Angeles particularly. This was not always the case. In many respects, the groundwork for America’s food craze was laid with the publication in 1961 of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck. The book brought the sophistication of French culinary technique and the concept of cuisine as an art form to the American home cook and into popular consciousness.
The average local galloping gourmand may not be aware that Child was born and raised in Pasadena and she would be celebrating her 108th birthday this Saturday, August 15. Child (nee Julia Carolyn McMaster) grew up in the handsome rambling house, which still stands at 1199 S. Pasadena Ave. The house was built in 1911 and designed by G. Lawrence Stimson, who was also the architect for the Wrigley mansion on Orange Grove, now the headquarters of the Tournament of Roses Foundation. Owned by Caltrans for many years, the property has fallen into disrepair and the local conservancy group Pasadena Heritage has been on a mission for several years to landmark the house.
By her own account, Child didn’t start learning to cook until she was 32 years old and living in Paris with her diplomat husband Paul Child. Pasadena didn’t provide her culinary inspiration. As a teen, she was unlikely to have encountered a baguette—let alone a good baguette—anywhere in the vicinity of Colorado Boulevard. That said, could she find one now? The answer is a resounding “Oui!” with the 3-year-old Frenchifornia.
French bread. Does any other country attach its name to the word “bread” in quite the same way? What is it about a perfectly baked fresh baguette that conjures thrilling satiation with such utter simplicity? France.
“It’s the country for the bread.” The direct simplicity of such a statement delivered with an off-hand, insouciant confidence could only come from a Frenchman. That Frenchman would be Thomas Dumont Girard, the baker and managing partner with pastry chef Guillaume Delcourt of Frenchifornia, the small storefront French patisserie on Colorado Boulevard, just east of Marengo. It shares the block with dim sum at Lunasia and ramen at Kopan. Dim sum and ramen? There are options. Authentic artisanal French bread and pastry? Not so many options. In fact, despite the profusion, variety and exotic diversity of Pasadena’s food culture, true French cuisine is not so commonly found in Child’s birthplace.
“It’s easy to find a French place but without the French taste, it’s very complicated to find it,” Girard said about his sense of the local landscape for his country’s cuisine. Still, he and Delcourt are fairly recent arrivals in town.
Girard, a native of Oyonnax—near Lyon in the south of France—met Delcourt in the northern city of Arras, studying patisserie at the culinary school there. On an initial tour of California seven years ago, the pair arrived first in the Bay Area.
“San Francisco is one of the cities we love,” Girard said. “When we arrived in LA, it was too much for us. So, we took the car and went to Pasadena. We said, ‘Whoa! It’s like a European city!’ All the trees, Old Town, we loved it.” They returned to France but with determined plans to move to Pasadena. Several years ensued, but in January 2017 the pair arrived here and in August, Frenchifornia was born.
Personally, I don’t realize how much I miss a real baguette until I wander into the shop randomly and buy one on impulse. This place goes into my weekly rotation tout suite. Bread. That’s it for me. I’m sure Delcourt’s patisserie is excellent, too, but I come for the bread.
Regardless it should be noted that on the day of my recent visit the pastry cases also contained smoked salmon eclairs, three types of quiche and eight flavors of macaron, including Earl Grey and salted butter caramel. Happily, one of the recent innovations spurred by the pandemic lockdown is a simple sandwich menu, which allows you to craft your own with the house baguette or croissant (or with no bread as a “salad box”).
The bread starts at $6 and $5.20, respectively. Add a choice of ham, turkey or pate at $1.50, followed by a choice of cheese: comte, brie, or goat for $1. Veggies include sun-dried tomatoes, avocado and black olives along with the usual greens at 75 cents per add-on.
Seasonings, at 25 cents each, include Dijon mustard, cornichons, vinaigrette and fried onion. Next to the blackboard menu, pink handwritten signs indicate the most popular sandwich as ham and comte on either bread. “D’accord!” Add Dijon and cornichons to the baguette and cloudy Colorado Boulevard dissolves into the Rue de Rivoli on a sunny day.
Business at Frenchifornia has been relatively resilient through the mandated lockdown and local reopening iterations. There were no “pivots” required as an established takeout business with a growing loyal clientele, although operating hours were adjusted with the shop now open Wednesday through Sunday.
“The weekend is very busy,” Girard said. “It’s like a small city in France, the Mondays are very, very quiet.” Catering inquiries have obviously diminished but recently the two partners at Frenchifornia have prepped and served patisserie for “special small events.” As Girard continues, “We are very happy. We have three employees. It could be worse.”
OK, where do you guys go for authentic French cuisine in town? Girard quickly offers, “On Green Street—Entre Nous? It’s a very good French place.” Now next on my list, Entre Nous is the progeny of Jean-Christophe Febbrari and Mathias Wakrat former partners at long-time local favorite Café Beaujolais in Eagle Rock. Entre Nous is open for dinner service Wednesday to Sunday for takeout and outdoor distanced seating. “Plus a venir!”
As we end our chat, Girard muses on Pasadena, his new hometown. “For a French guy like me it’s a real European place.” Apparently, we need go no further than our own backyard for continental atmosphere and cuisine. As Child always said, “Bon appetit!”